The Maine Statehouse in Augusta. Credit: Jim Bowen / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amid complaints that the state’s current law is unworkable, legislators revive a vetoed bill under a new governor.

Maine lawmakers are trying again after a veto last year to fix a microgrid law that critics say make the projects unworkable in the state.

Microgrids are permitted under Maine law, but there is no clear path for a community to develop one if a utility is already providing electric service. Recent projects have required unique circumstances, including participation by utilities.

A year ago, a bipartisan measure passed by the Legislature would have allowed state regulators to approve construction of microgrids “that serve the public interest,” but it was vetoed by former Gov. Paul LePage.

Current Gov. Janet Mills is pursuing an aggressive clean energy agenda and her legislative colleagues have introduced virtually the same bill that was vetoed last year, now known as LD 13.

Rep. Mick Devin, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he was inspired by a trip to Vermont, where he observed how Green Mountain Power was working to integrate clean energy into its power system. “It’s an example of how Maine might move forward on energy policy, particularly via the establishment of microgrids,” Devin said.

LD 13 would create a process through which the Maine Public Utilities Commission could approve the construction and operation of new microgrids.

The microgrid could serve load no larger than 10 megawatts, generation would have to be located nearby and contribute to the state’s renewable portfolio standard. The operator also could not be an investor-owned utility or affiliate.

A 2014 study by a Stanford University professor concluded that Maine could switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, powered completely by microgrids. That could create over 13,000 permanent jobs, reduce energy demand by 33 percent and reduce average electricity cost by 31 percent.

At a Jan. 31 legislative hearing, Olin Jenner of Sierra Club Maine supported the bill for both reliability enhancements and costs savings, citing studies and a pilot project by Central Maine Power that aimed to reduce transmission costs.

“Allowing the development of microgrids in Maine would likely help to lower rates by incentivizing non-transmission alternatives throughout the state. Investments in transmission lines are how utilities make a profit, because they are guaranteed a 12 percent return on investment. While this has improved the utility infrastructure, it is not always fiscally prudent to focus investments on transmission lines due to their large expense,” Jenner said.

Jim Cohen, an attorney representing Emera Maine, said the utility supports the concept of microgrids to enhance reliability but 10 megawatts stretches the definition of a workable area to serve.

“We believe the bill is too open-ended and could allow unregulated entities to deliver electricity to customers, or result in costly duplication of facilities,” Cohen said. “We would encourage the committee to step back and identify goals and policies before enacting legislation.”

Small, consumer-owned utilities have also objected, saying microgrids would not be regulated as public utilities, and therefore would lack oversight from the Public Utilities Commission.

The bill is awaiting action at the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. Committee Chair Rep. Seth Berry said it is one of a large number of energy initiatives before it with further action not yet scheduled.

The bill directs the Public Utilities Commission to submit a report to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2021.

Maine isn’t the only New England state where lawmakers are looking to address microgrids. The New Hampshire House recently passed a bill (HB 183) that calls for creating a legislative commission to study changes in state law needed to permit microgrids.

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Bill is a freelance journalist based outside Albany, New York. As a former New England correspondent for RTO Insider, he has written about energy for newspapers, magazines and other publications for more than 20 years. He has an extensive career in trade publications and newspapers, mostly focused on the utility sector, covering such issues as restructuring, renewable energy and consumer affairs. Bill covers Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and also compiles the Northeast Energy News daily email digest.